Deconstructing the Right Wing Appropriation of the Term “Appeasement”


By Joe Campbell
November 17th, 2009


 
I’ve tried hard to find something to respect about Victor Davis Hanson – as he takes himself seriously, and is taken seriously, including by people whom I take seriously – but for the most part, his pieces are just less hysterical attempts to push right wing memes. Only in a world of Sean Hannitys, Glenn Becks, Sarah Palins, Jonah Goldbergs, Kathryn Lopezes, Michelle Malins, and Ann Coulters, is he a moderate.

But he has an interesting post over at The Corner, making a good point in defense of George W. Bush (though in the service of a meme that so many of these independent, individualistic conservatives promote in a synchronized fashion: that Obama should stop blaming George W. Bush for what he inherited.) Hanson points out that Bush inherited some bad “stuff” from Bill Clinton – including a mild recession, simmering issues with Iraq and the Middle East, and Osama bin Laden on the loose – and left some improved areas to Barack Obama – including an Iraq much improved from its chaos earlier in Bush’s term, relationships with Europe much improved from earlier in Bush’s term, a Libya that had given up its nuclear program, and a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.  Obama inherited a more challenging set of issues than Bush though: Two wars, the worst economic conditions in 80 years, a deficit doubled in 8 years and having grown so large it threatens America’s fiscal solvency, America at its lowest standing in the world community in a generation, Osama Bin Laden still at large, an Iranian regime strengthened and emboldened as America took away every check on its power, etcetera, etcetera.

But even while making this valid point, Hanson resorts to propagandic measures – none of which actively undermine the point he is trying to make – but all of which together demonstrate that he is merely attempting to write propaganda rather than engage with the issues. He only cites those facts that prove his point, ignores the large amount of contradictory evidence, and makes a number of questionable assertions. (Is Kim Jong Il really on better terms with Obama than Bush? Ahmadinejad? Putin – into whose eyes Bush looked and got “a sense of his soul“?)

But perhaps most telling, is his use of the buzzword, “appease.” To quote George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language,” propagandists organize their thoughts as collections of  “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Rather than choose words based on their meaning, they instead choose those which best serve their ideology. For example, Orwell, writes that some words, “now [have] no meaning except in so far as [they] signify[…] ‘something not desirable.’ ” He uses word “Fascism” as an example of this – and the word “democracy” as an example of a word that is used to mean merely “something good.” Hanson’s writing doesn’t always have that prefabricated henhouse feel – as some writers do (Kathryn Lopez, I’m looking at you!) – but he does misuse language in the manner Orwell discussed.

The most glaring issue is his use of a single word. Hanson writes:

George W. Bush inherited…a pattern of appeasing radical Islam after its serial attacks (on the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers, U.S. embassies, and the U.S.S. Cole). [my emphasis]

Think about the use of the word “appease” in this context. The word means “to make peace with” often by “acceding to demands or granting concessions.” Bill Clinton’s response to these attacks – prosecuting the perpetrators, bombing locations we believed were related to Al Qaeda, and attempting to assassinate Osama bin Laden – doesn’t fit into what anyone would call “making peace with” or “acceding” to any demands. The word “appease” then was chosen not because of its meaning, but because of its place in Hanson’s ideology. The word “appease” – as used by right wingers – has evolved from its literal definition. They use it to call forth comparisons to the single historical moment that has defined neoconservative thinking: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich. Chamberlain famously did seek to appease Hitler, offering him Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia in return for peace. And just as famously, it did not work.

Right wingers now though seem to see every national security issue as a binary choice between Appeasement and Confrontation. Obama wants to try terrorists in federal court instead of military commissions? Appeasement. Democrats oppose sending a surge of troops into Iraq? Appeasement. Iran wants to negotiate peace with the United States? If we even talk to them, it’s Appeasement, so we must choose Confrontation and ignore them. Only if every national security decision is seen as a binary choice between Appeasement and Confrontation does the disastrous first term decisions by Bush make sense. Orwell warned that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Language is corrupted in order to “defend the indefensible” and to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Thus, words such as “appease” are now used by right wingers to distract and obfuscate from the history that was and to suggest an enhanced and alternate view of the history that proves them correct.

[Image in the public domain.]

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